Leaving behind the bright lights of Havana, Lydia Bell journeys down Cuba's rural backroads, where life has changed little in centuries.
AN OLD man, with a warm smile decorated by a single tooth, is our hitchhiker of choice for the morning. His wiry grandson helps him haul a bulky package into our rented car. The package emits a loud grunt. "El puerco," announces the old man, "es para mis cumpleanos 80 el jueves." The pig is for my 80th birthday on Thursday.
We are in Cuba's heart, the middle of this long streak of island, in search of the country's provincial face and a gentler pace than Havana. In a country where a car is a precious commodity, hitchhiking is popular.We start in the northern peninsula of Varadero, two hours east of Havana. It has turquoise seas and an endless and exquisite white-sand beach spotted with palms. But it's the land of the all-inclusive hotel and has precious little local flavour.
The road out of Varadero is plastered with revolutionary slogans. Patriotismo o muerte (Patriotism or death). Revolucion para siempre (Revolution forever). It reads strangely this close to the self-indulgences of Varadero. Quickly, the bitumen peters out into potholed pathway. After two hours we are in Cienfuegos, a port city on the south coast.
Our hotel is Palacio Azul on Punta Gorda, a horse-drawn clip-clop from the centre, which looks like suburban Florida. This tiny hotel, built in 1921 as the home of a tobacco baron, becomes one of my favourite in Cuba, with a tight-knit staff, elegant colonial decor and dreamy balcony views over the dolphin-filled bay. Next door, at Club Cienfuegos, we can hear bands plucking away. An adolescent hustler on a pushbike screeches to a halt beside us. We arrange for him to pick us up later so we can check out some paladares (private restaurants). This will set the tone for most of our evenings in the Central Provinces: being whisked around by jineteros (hustlers). They get a bad rap but their commissions are small and they are helpful. This one secures me a $7 seafood grill in a cosy paladar. I can't reveal the location, as it's illegal - but you'll find it if you want to.
Cienfuegos was settled late for Cuba, in 1819. The streets are spacious compared with the claustrophobic small-scale chaos of other Cuban provincial capitals. On the Paseo del Prado, the longest street in Cuba, people-watching seems to be the only activity.
That evening we discover pretty Parque Jose Marti, the main square, dominated by the beautiful Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion and the lively social scene at Teatro Tomas Terry's patio (the theatre itself, an 1890 frescoed museum piece, is unaltered, down to the dinky wooden seats). We take in romantic bay views from the rooftop of Hotel La Union, a pistachio-green colonial renovation with neo-classical pool sculptures.
We leave for Trinidad via Cienfuegos' Botanical Gardens, a tropical park of palms, orchids and bamboos. Founded in 1899, it has 2000 species of plants.
To reach Trinidad we edge through the foothills of the palm-smothered Escambray Mountains, then dip down to the coast, passing villages backed by mountains and roads criss-crossed by giant crabs.
Trinidad is the most handsome town in Cuba, in one of the most idyllic provinces, Sancti Spiritus. Founded by Diego Velazquez in 1514, from here Herman Cortes recruited soldiers for the conquest of Mexico and it became an important colonial town, which grew fat on sugar between 1750 and 1850, when its beautiful valleys were dotted with scores of sugar mills. When the slaves were freed, fortunes dipped and Trinidad stopped growing.
Today, it's an exquisitely preserved museum piece of cobblestone streets and sumptuous squares. Walk a few streets and the village peters out into red earth, drooping palms and mountains. Drive about eight kilometres and you reach a perfect stretch of beach, Peninsula Ancon. We visit Museo Romantico - an old merchant home now a colonial museum, with Italian marble floors and fireplaces, Viennese bureaux, Limoges and Wedgwood-packed French dressers.
At night, Trinidad is subdued. Jineteros emerge from the shadows, directing you to paladares. Things come alive late at the Casa de la Musica, which has unremarkable salsa but an unmatchably romantic setting in the hiatus of a grand stone stairwell. Wrought-iron chairs and tables are set out; people sit on the stairs and watch those dancing.
Next stop, Santa Clara, capital of Villa Clara province and home to the Che Guevara memorial, the Battle of Santa Clara being a key point in the revolutionary war of 1958. Instead of crossing the Topes de Collantes range, we will have to go around it. But it's no penance - we drive through the stunning Valle de los Ingenios, which made Trinidad super rich with sugar fields. We buy pastilla de guayabo (guava pies) from a farmer at the side of the road, and glimpse a rural life lost in the rest of the Caribbean: oxen ploughing fields; farmers sowing crops by hand or on horses in spurs, cigar in mouth.
Santa Clara feels workaday, its buildings in shades of peeling pastel, but the town has life and history. The university is dominant, especially its medical school. Students throng the humming streets. The town's centre is Parque Vidal, full of courting lovers, seated old men and giggling schoolchildren. At the Museo de Artes Decorativas, chinoiserie screens, ornate mahogany furniture, enamel-encrusted escritoires and English china speak of a richer, pre-revolutionary past.
At the Plaza de la Revolucion, schoolchildren swarm the vast parade ground. Its monuments - including a giant bronze of Guevara - are inscribed with his rousing words. The space sings with melancholy. Below the square, a museum is dedicated to Guevara's life, his photos and belongings. Next door, an eternal flame marks the place where he and 16 of the men from his failed 1967 Bolivia campaign are buried.We are staying out of town in Villa La Granjita, which has thatched cabanas, an open-air restaurant and a pool in landscaped surrounds.
Next morning we leave for our final destination: Camaguey, four hours down the carretera through flat plains, criss-crossing railway lines choked with weeds and down empty potholed motorways with horses in the slow lane.
Cuba's third-largest city, which still feels like a village, is enchanting, especially the Colon hotel, where we are staying. Built in 1927, it has a mysterious air and an elaborate mahogany bar. We arrive on a Saturday, the night of the weekly street party. There are trestle tables, pigs on spits, numerous children and reggaeton.
Camaguey is full of blind alleys and forked streets - a deliberate ploy to foil the pirates who plagued this part of Cuba in the 16th century. Away from the main drag, the town is deserted, its streets of genteel terraced houses slinking away down the next curve, where you might find in a quiet square a ruined church with a once-grandiose facade, and two lovers kissing.
There are handfuls of pretty churches. We look into Iglesia de la Soledad, which throngs with people - Catholicism and other Christian denominations have been on the up since the Pope visited in 1996. My favourite is in Plaza San Juan de Dios, where a white-faced, lachrymose virgin is trapped in a vast mahogany case, along with other holy characters.
Opposite the church, the town's best state restaurant, La Campana del Toledo, is the place for a long, lazy lunch: with polished wooden tables, tangled tropical gardens and old men serenading with local songs. At Bodegon Don Cayetano on Calle Republica, which has a pretty tiled patio with plenty of local trade, we eat tasty enchilladas for $4.
On Sunday afternoon we find the casino campestre, the urban park, where we chance upon a little zoo. Here, we find a decent pizza stall, a pond of flamingoes, primates and, unexpectedly, a glossy puma, a lion, three lionesses and cubs.
Across the road is the Plaza de la Revolucion, reverberatingly empty but for a group of adolescents, kitted out in full all-American regalia and engaged in a baseball game of some skill. Unbelievably, we come across Pedro, our ancient hitchhiker, sans pig this time. "Manana!" he reminds us delightedly. "Mis cumpleanos 80!"
So the pig's time is over then. And so is ours. Tomorrow we hit the road again, this time back to Havana and then on to the modern world.
Sydney's Cuba Group Tours, in conjunction with Big Planet Adventure, specialises in tailor-made and small-group tours of Cuba. Its 22-day Complete Cuba tour is priced from US$1475 ($1644). (02) 9389 7755, cubagrouptour.com.
Imaginative Traveller has 10-day group tours to Cuba, priced from $2150. 1300 135 088, www.imaginative-traveller.com.au.
Palacio Azul, Avenue 20, Punta Gorda, Cienfuegos, has double rooms priced from $55 a night. +53 432 7204 4439, cubatravelhotels.com.
Costasur hotel, Playa Maria Aguilar, Casilda, Peninsula Ancon has doubles from $US44 a night. +53 419 6174, bookallcuba.com.
Villa La Granjita, Santa Clara, has rooms from $US35 a night. +537 204 3449, solwayscuba.com.
Colon Hotel, Calle Republica 472, Camaguey, has rooms from $US41 a night. +53 3228 3346.
See + Do
Club Cienfuegos, Punta Gorda, is open nightly. +53 4351 2891.
Cienfuegos' Botanical Gardens are open daily, 8am-4.30pm. +53 4354 5334.
Museo Romantico Trinidad is open seven days. +53 4199 4363.
Santa Clara's Che Guevara monument museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 9am to 5.30pm. +51 4220 5878.